Picking the 2022 Canadian Men's Olympic Roster Using Analytics

Hockey - 2014 Winter Olympics - Sochi, RU - Olympics - ESPN

Happy Canada Day! This morning, the NHL and NHLPA delivered fans a surprise: per Elliotte Friedman, it looks like NHL players are headed back to the Olympics in 2022. This would mean we finally get the opportunity to see a true best-on-best international tournament for the first time since 2014. The prospect of seeing Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby finally playing together is exciting enough, but Canada’s got so many amazing players and the opportunity to assemble a team just as dominant as the one they sent to Sochi.

To celebrate, I decided to pick a 2022 Canadian Olympic roster using analytics. These included not only Wins Above Replacement (projected out to 2022 using an age curve), but even strength offence and defence Goals Above Replacement, finishing talent (measured in terms of goals above expected), and even microstats from Corey Sznajder and - when available = SportLogiq. This allowed me to choose players who not only are the best available overall but who I think are compatible with one another. To present these stats, I’ll use a visualization that includes the players’ projected 2022 WAR and their percentile ranks in Offence (RAPM isolated impact on on-ice goals for), Defence (RAPM isolated impact on on-ice expected goals against), and shooting.

A major consideration: many great point producers in the league rely heavily on the powerplay, an opportunity that they won’t necessarily get as the 9th or 10th best player on an Olympic team. That’s why I focused so much on even strength play - but looking at this group I doubt anyone’s going to complain that this team can’t function on the man-advantage.

So let’s get going.

Forwards

Forward Line #1: Connor McDavid is the league’s most talented offensive player, one of the fastest skaters in the history of the game and uniquely skilled at handling and distributing the puck at top speed. That should be a perfect fit for Nathan MacKinnon, who possesses a similar skillset with a bit more strength and puck possession ability. He’s demonstrated an ability to play on the right wing in the past, and should be able to fill the Draisaitl role very well on 97’s wing. Rounding out the trio is one of MacKinnon’s old QMJHL rivals, Jonathan Huberdeau. He’s a very strong playmaker at even strength and should be able to get his linemates the puck consistently.

This line wouldn’t exactly be inspiring defensively, but it would be the most dynamic in the tournament (and maybe the most exciting this side of Team North America).

Forward Line #2: This line has a little bit of everything. Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point have proven chemistry with the Lightning, having been part of one of the league’s best lines over the past two seasons. Few player in the league possess the combination of speed, puck control, playmaking, and scoring talent that Point does, and while he’s not exceptional defensively he’s a strong stickchecker. Stamkos may no longer be the 60-goal scorer he was when he was young, but he’s an incredibly effective offensive player nonetheless. Finally, Mark Stone is arguably the league’s best two-way forward, dominant at possessing the puck and driving offence but just as effective at using his stick to disrupt the opposition. He’s Canada’s best natural winger, but he fits better with this line due to his lack of straight-line speed compared to MacKinnon. That doesn’t mean he’s slow though, and the way he plays would mesh very well with Point and Stamkos’ uptempo style.

Forward Line #3: This third line could be called the “you never get the puck” line. Each of these players has a fair claim to be called one of the league’s best two-way forwards: O’Reilly has a Selke to his name already (and was the most deserving among mainstream candidates this season as well), Couturier will probably win one this summer, and Cirelli might even be a contender next year. But all of these players are also incredibly effective offensive players, whether it’s because of passing skill (O’Reilly and Couturier), finishing talent (Couturier), or a knack for net-front deflections (Cirelli). They also have a broad range of talents defensively including elite stick-checking and strength. The one blemish on this line is their lack of speed, but this unit would be more concerned with exhausting their opponents in the offensive zone than creating off the rush.

Forward Line #4: Sidney Crosby, who will presumably be wearing an “A” here, has always preferred to play with smart and speedy puck retrievers who create chaos in front of the net and allow him to carry the puck. His fellow Nova Scotian Brad Marchand might be his dream left winger (no offence to Jake Guentzel); on top of those assets, he’s an excellent passer and has tremendous finishing talent. Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher is similarly talented, playing the game with speed and aggravating opponents and goalies in front of the net. While Crosby’s overall defensive numbers in the past three years have been poor, he demonstrated in 18-19 that he can be dominant in that regard when he wants to be. Deployed on a fourth line with some of the best offensive talent in the league ahead of him, I have little doubt that he could find that gear again.

(Part of me really wanted to reunite the 2016 World Cup of Hockey top line and include a 37 year old Patrice Bergeron here, but while it isn’t unfathomable that the Bruins veteran might still be an elite player by then, it’s by no means a guarantee.)

Taxi Squad: Team Canada has an insanely talented group of forwards to draw from, which means there were really tough cuts here. Mark Scheifele was a possible candidate to play alongside McDavid due to the speed with which he plays the game. He has elite puck control and shooting ability, but his egregious defensive deficiencies kept him out of my final twelve here. Mathew Barzal’s talents are obvious to anyone who watches him (or tracks how long he can hold on to the puck). I just don’t know how well he would fit on a line where he wasn’t the best player - his puck-hogging would certainly not endear him to McDavid or Crosby. Marner is similarly strong in these categories, but I have somewhat similar concerns with him (although far less so, since he doesn't rag the puck nearly as much as Barzal).

Maybe Alexis Lafrenière will deserve one of these spots by 2022, but of course we have no way of knowing.

Defence

I have to admit, picking Canada’s defence was tough - not for a lack of talent (obviously) but for the massive imbalance between left- and right-handed defencemen. People in hockey always talk about quality right-handed defencemen as a white whale, but in Canada’s case at least the right side is much stronger. As much as it pained me to do it, I chose to abide by the LD-RD requirement, which led to some very difficult decisions.

Defence Pair #1: Hamilton is Canada’s (and arguably the NHL’s) top defenceman. He’s exceptional offensively, driving offence at the best rate in the league thanks to great skating, passing, and puck control skills. He’s also extremely underrated defensively, using his stick effectively in his own zone and preventing zone entries at a high clip. Chabot is certainly not a great defensive player yet, but he’s done a very good job of running the Senators’ blueline pretty much singlehandedly at a young age - all while playing the heaviest workload in the entire league. His speed and ability to break out the puck will be make him McDavid and MacKinnon’s best friend.

Defence Pair #2: This duo is similar to the top pair. Rielly is a pure offensive defenceman: an incredible breakout passer who’s consistently able to help out his forwards in transition and even join the rush using his speed. He’s pretty awful defensively however, which is where Jared Spurgeon comes in. I would have him take the “underrated defenceman gets to play for Team Canada” mantle from Marc-Édouard Vlasic, solidifying this pair and allowing Rielly to thrive. Spurgeon’s forte is his skating, as Jack Han shows here, and while he will be 32 by the time 2022 rolls around he should be able to almost maintain his consistently high level of play. He was the league’s best two-way defenceman this season, and would be well-deserving of a spot on the roster.

Defence Pair #3: Cale Makar had a great rookie season for the Avalanche, even if the underlying numbers didn’t quite live up to the gaudy point totals and highlight reels. He’s a dynamic offensive player, endowed with skating, puck handling, passing and shooting skills usually reserved for elite forwards. It’s not out of the question that he might be even higher in this lineup by the time 2022 rolls around. On the left side, I’ve picked an underrated gem. Realistically, Devon Toews will not be on Team Canada. But if he begins to get the attention he deserves, he may well be in the conversation. Only two seasons into his NHL career he’s stood out for his superb two-way play, highlighted by elite transition play, excellent skating, and accurate passing.

Taxi Squad: It was tough to leave these guys off. If they were left handed, they’d be there without a shadow of a doubt. While both will be 32 by the time the tournament rolls around, they project to remain among the league’s elite defencemen by that time. If you’re big into analytics you might be wondering why Shea Theodore is nowhere to be seen - he’s the next LD on my list but it does concern me how much Vegas still feels the need to shelter his minutes despite his increased ice time. In a tournament where top competition will be pretty much a perpetual fact of life, I didn’t want to risk that being exposed. If you’re not big into analytics you might be wondering where Drew Doughty is. My answer can be found here.

Goaltending

Goaltending Tandem: Goaltending is such a crapshoot, and Canada did me no favours here. We might be the only major country that doesn’t have a true “elite” goalie at the moment (no, Carey Price and Marc-Andre Fleury don’t count). Honestly, I would say you should just take whoever’s having a really good season in 2021-22 who you don’t think will freak out under pressure. In the meantime, Jordan Binnington seems like a fairly decent bet, as he still hasn’t crashed down to earth after his cinderella Cup run last season and we know he can handle the intensity of a championship game. Carter Hart was actually the better of the two this season, leading the Flyers to a bye spot with a late-season charge. There’s every chance (and honestly I might bet on it) that he’ll be the one in the starter’s net when 2022 rolls around.

And invite a 35 year old Carey Price as the 3rd goalie to regale them with Sochi stories. Why not, eh?

Conclusion

So there you have it. As you might expect, Canada has very good hockey players, and has the chance to put together an utterly dominant team that would combine dynamic scoring and playmaking talent, elite transition play, and suffocating defence. As 2014 showed, the country’s stock of players is so strong that they can afford to make a few less-than-ideal choices. I think that this roster would put them in the best position to run the table, but realistically they could chuck Cody Ceci on the third pair and still have a very high chance of winning the gold medal.

There will be plenty of arguments about a Canadian Olympic roster over the next year and a half, but in the meantime let’s just celebrate that it looks like we’re finally going to see some best-on-best hockey again.